The Taste of Spiritual Strawberries
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. “
John 15:16 (NIV)
Boy oh boy, do I love strawberries.
Just so we are on the same page, I’m talking about real strawberries – those Indiana grown varieties, the ones whose aroma draws you, the ones that leave a sensual memory as they explode in your mouth. The ones you can never get enough of.
There is nothing better than fresh picked strawberries, especially if you picked them! Years ago, a friend introduced me to the world of you-pick farms. We would always leave with a car-full of berries, far more than we could ever eat! When my children were old enough, I took them picking. Scott, my oldest, charged down the rows, picking berries in plain sight, grabbing all he could. Most of his berries went straight to the mouth instead of the basket. Scott was so passionate about berry eating that berry picking was merely a small bump in the road. Tom, my youngest, took his time looking for the perfect berry. He carefully studied each one, putting only a selective few in his basket. Both boys loved berry picking in their own unique way and couldn’t wait to visit the patch again.
Can you imagine what it would be like if people felt as excited about church as my boys did about the strawberry patch? Don’t you wish people saw church as a place where they could fill their spiritual souls the way fresh berries satisfy the belly? Alas, many people don’t. When it comes to strawberries, some have forgotten the power of the real thing and settle for the rubbery-chip ones found in cereal boxes. When it comes to spiritual life, some have forgotten the serge of the senses found in those engaging moments of Christian fellowship and don’t see churches as essential places where faith can grow.
Yet, God calls us to be a fruitful congregation. In the 15th chapter of John, Jesus tells us “You did not choose me; I chose you to bear fruit, fruit that will last. “ This task of bearing fruit may feel a tad daunting: many of us aren’t gardeners and may not know how to produce fruit that others might want to pick. We are stumped in how to create that contagious enthusiasm needed to grow a Christian life. We aren’t trained in how to lead people in a faith journey. Yet, Jesus chose us to bear fruit that will spiritually nurture others. Jesus asks us to grow spiritual strawberries so others might taste and ask for more.
What does it mean to be a fruitful congregation? Our mentor, Robert Schnase, reminds us that evangelistic churches focus on relationships with God. Fruitful congregations work towards creating connections, for when Christians come together they create a power that can transform this world into the place God intends for it to be. Schanse uses words like radical, passionate, intentional, risk-taking and extravagant – all words that describe a special kind of energy that is needed for fruitfulness. You can’t just throw a seed into a mound of dirt and expect results. It takes a special space to grow, lots of sun and water, organic nutrients and, of course a little faith. There is no magic formula, just the right kind of energy at the right time.
Like seeds, each Christian needs a different mix of energy in order to blossom. Fruitful churches offer creative opportunities so individuals can participate in whatever calls them. My sons remind us that some people pick the obvious, but some prefer to meticulously explore to find what they are looking for. Some want to pick a lot at one time, some appreciate smaller doses. Some want to fill their bellies right now; some prefer to save for later. It takes a lot of energy to grow lasting fruit. It is our mission to create safe and exciting places where that energy can be found. It is our privilege to offer worship and faith development programs that can assist others in growing relationships with Christ. It is our challenge to grow and bear fruit that others will pick for their own spiritual baskets.
How do we create churches that exude that kind of fruitful energy? Our local you-pick farms have customers coming by the car load and leaving with their arms filled. What do they do to keep people coming back for more?
They advertise. They announce with pride ‘look what we have to offer!’ They know the farm itself isn’t enough; they need a visual marker. Our churches can shout volumes about who we are, on both the inside and the outside. After all, what we offer is worth shouting about!
They practice hospitality. Great you-pick farms are excited about their product and want others to feel the same. Isn’t that want we want too? Isn’t the offer of a relationship with Jesus Christ worth the effort of hospitality? Positive first impressions entice both members and visitors to want more.
They have any items a picker might need but didn’t bring. What might newcomers to faith need? Written worship guides? Prayer partners? Devotion books? Our visitors will help us create the list. To accomplish our mission, we will need resources to help newcomers feel a part of our group.
They offer traditional and non-traditional experiences. After all, there will always be people who don’t want to traipse the patch but still crave the taste of fresh berries. One person might be drawn to Sunday worship, another to a mother’s discussion group. One might grow through music, another by writing about faith. Some might be touched by simply picking up a book in the church library. All we have to do is ask – what might work for you?
They offer opportunities for fellowship. My love of Indiana strawberries began through an invitation of a friend. If you asked parishioners why they attend your church, you would probably hear ‘it is because of the people.’ Fruitful congregations promote relationships. Our wanting to share is what develops future disciples. The mere act of sharing is what develops us. If we invite them to the table, we both grow.
They practice patience and tolerance. The farm staff didn’t say a word when my boy’s juice-covered chins revealed that not all their picked strawberries landed in their baskets. We will meet people in our church life that don’t go picking their faith journey in the way we do. But God chose us to mentor other Christians in becoming fruitful. When we practice patience and tolerance, we expand our own spiritual boundaries into include everyone.
They link to future events. The signs at the counter say “Visit us in June for snap beans”! They believe customers are hungry for fresh produce and we believe all people we encounter are eternally hungry for a rich spiritual life. Our future fruit will continue our mission of promoting and savoring relationships with God. Our future events are worth talking about.
Lastly, farms see their mission as lasting generations. At the end of day, it’s about a full cash register AND about sharing their passion of farming. Sometimes churches get sidetracked with worship attendance and church budgets but fruitful churches always stay centered in mission. Our bottom line will always be to initiate, develop and role model relationships with God. We want future generations to tell the sacred stories, demonstrate caring, to spread the good news. We want future congregations to know what matters. We want those yet to come to experience the sensual memory of a strawberry.
Self-pick farms are always ready for the neophyte picker and the fellow enthusiast. Maybe that is the biggest lesson of all – fruitful congregations work to be ready to bear fruit that will last. God calls us to look for the stranger, the unchurched, and the unsure and be prepared to serve. After all, if we believe we were chosen to bear fruit that will last, we will be ready and willing to assist others in picking eternal fruit that leads them to a life with God.
Put on your gardening clothes and go forth to create a church filled with spiritual fruit. Dig deep, plant well, and prepare a lively and faith-filled patch. Shout to the neighborhood, we’ve got berries! Grab your apron, make pies to share, can preserves for later. Tell everyone! Make the taste of savory, luscious, juicy spiritual strawberries last forever!